Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard will reopen offshore detention centers for refugees after parliament passed laws to deter asylum seekers, as she tries to resolve an issue damaging her government.
In a policy backflip, refugees trying to reach Australia by boat will be sent to camps on the South Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing, under amendments to the Migration Act approved by the upper house Senate yesterday.
While the number of people seeking asylum in Australia is dwarfed by applications to the U.S., the issue has dogged Gillard’s government, which is battling to claw back from near record-low approval ratings before elections due next year. The shift in policy was criticized by human rights campaigners who said the new laws were arbitrary and discriminatory.
“Australia’s new offshore processing law is a giant step backward in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers,” Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement. “Australia again seeks to shunt desperate boat people to remote camps, perhaps for years, to punish them for arriving uninvited by sea.”
The minority Labor government has come under attack from the Liberal-National opposition as increasing numbers of refugees pay Indonesian smugglers to ferry them in overcrowded boats to Australia, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
Processing refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru would mark a return to former Prime Minister John Howard’s so-called Pacific Solution that was scrapped after Labor won office in 2007.
Almost 1,000 asylum seekers, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia since 2001, former Defense Force chief Angus Houston said Aug. 13 in delivering a report that was the catalyst for Gillard deciding to reopen the camps. The fatalities have ramped up in the past three years, with 604 people losing their lives since October 2009, he said.
“Gillard’s policy reversal shows she’s willing to wear some short-term pain so she can try to eventually neutralize a damaging issue,” said Paul Strangio, a senior lecturer in politics at Monash University in Melbourne. “While the merits of offshore processing are debatable, at least there now seems a real effort to prevent drownings.”
Gillard said yesterday she backs all 22 recommendations in Houston’s report, including increasing Australia’s refugee intake to 20,000 from about 13,700 currently and seeking discussions with Malaysia to create an offshore processing center there.
The nation’s first female prime minister said earlier this week she wants to start processing of refugees at Nauru and Papua New Guinea within a month of the laws being passed.
While asylum seekers have been arriving by boat in Australia since the Vietnam War in the 1970s, the issue became more politicized about a decade ago when Howard’s Liberal-National government detained refugees, including children, in offshore processing camps or in isolated detention centers in the outback.
Some asylum seekers responded to their detention with riots, suicides and by sewing their lips together to protest, with a United Nations report released in 2002 finding their treatment “inhumane and degrading.”
In August 2001, Howard refused to allow 430 asylum seekers on the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, to enter Australian waters and ordered soldiers to board the ship. His bid to deter people smugglers included orders to the Navy to “turn back the boats,” a phrase current Liberal-National leader Tony Abbott repeats today as opposition policy.
Abbott has blamed Labor’s closure of the camps for a rise in the number of refugee boats arriving and increasing deaths at sea.
“The tragedy of Australia’s situation over the last four years is that the people smugglers have been in charge of who comes to our country,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra yesterday. “Under John Howard, the government was in charge.”
While a poll published Aug. 7 showed support for Labor rose to the highest level in six months, Gillard is still tracking toward defeat in next year’s elections. Labor’s primary vote increased five points to 33 percent from two weeks before, while support for Abbott’s coalition dropped one point to 45 percent, the Newspoll for the Australian newspaper showed.
UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said Aug. 13 it needs to study Gillard’s Nauru and Papua New Guinea proposals in more detail.
“The efficacy and integrity of such proposals will need to be assessed against their ability to deliver effective protection outcomes to refugees identified as needing protection under international law, not least through the 1951 Refugee Convention to which Australia is a party,” UNHCR said in a statement on its website.
The nation received 15,441 asylum applications last year, compared with 60,587 in the U.S. and 43,759 for Sweden, according to the Refugee Council of Australia. While the political debate is focused on so-called boat people, 6,316 people seeking asylum in 2010-11 arrived in Australia by air, compared with 5,175 by boat, the council says.
“The quality of the political debate from the government and opposition this week yet again leaves many Australians despairing about whether our political representatives have the interest or the capacity to deal with the complex nature of the regional challenges in refugee protection,” the council said in a statement Aug. 16.